Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Belgian government supports peace and freedom (not!)

The Belgian government has made all sorts of noises in the past about its adherence to the ideas of peace and freedom. There were suggestions of putting Ariel Sharon (though not Yasser Arafat), as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell, President Bush, Prime Minister Blair (though not Saddam Hussein) on trial for war crimes.

Earlier this week they could have done something a little more concrete for the cause. There was a suggestion that Akhmad Zakayev, the European representative of Aslan Maskhadov, the last elected President of Chechnya, who now lives in Britain where he had been granted asylum, meet the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. This was not an official beginning of peace negotiations but, nevertheless, a tentative step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, President Putin in his ever tougher mood is not happy about independent organizations that are critical of his policy meeting anybody, let alone men he, on little evidence, has described as terrorists. So the Belgian government, in its freedom-loving fashion, has obliged. First, they refused to let Zakayev in, though he had travelled to Brussels before in order to participate in a Chechnyan conference. But, most effectively, they refused to issue visas to members of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers.

Several things developed in Russia after the horrific events of Beslan. Some seemed quite positive such as President Putin’s announcement, presumably under a great deal of pressure internally and externally, that there will be an investigation into the siege and its bloody conclusion. Then, as the pressure immediately died off, he announced further that the investigation would be conducted by a committee of the Upper House of the Duma or, in other words, politicians completely loyal to him.

President Putin’s next great announcement was that having tried fighting terrorism by more traditional methods and failing to achieve anything, he was going to try something completely new: abolition of elections. How turning regional governors into appointees of the central government instead of elected representatives would help to fight terrorism was not clear, but Putin’s proposed law was passed by the Duma and seemed to be supported by the majority of Russia’s population.

However, not all in the garden is lovely for President Putin and his henchmen in the Duma and the government. The quagmire that is Chechnya (and in this case, the description is accurate), the fact that the war is going nowhere, that the Russian army seems to be fighting almost exclusively the civilian population, while the boyeviki, the fighters, pick the soldiers off at will; the widening rather than lessening terrorism problem; all these have contributed to a growing conviction that some form of negotiation must be attempted.

Putin and his ministers have insisted that there can be no negotiation with anyone who has any claim to represent the Chechnyans, as they are all, a priori, terrorists. Thus Aslan Maskhadov, the last elected president of Chechnya, who has consistently opposed attacks on civilians, hostage taking and kidnappings, is not to be distinguished in the eyes of the Russian authorities from Shalam Basayev, a terrorist, terror master and mass murderer. (Interestingly, despite the high price the government has put on both their heads there has, apparently, not been a single squeak about their whereabouts.)

Right, now, where does the Belgian government come into it all? One of the organizations that had been active in revealing the truth about the first Chechnyan war was the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. When Putin sent the troops in again in 1999, he made quite certain of not repeating President Yeltsin’s mistakes. He banned the media from the ever larger “fighting” area and he sidelined the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. They lost their office and were denied access to the media, now largely under the government’s control.

Some journalists managed to get through and found themselves treated rather roughly by the authorities for their pains. Most recently, Anna Politkovskaya, who had written about the war and about Putin’s Russia, was poisoned on her way to Beslan during the siege. The doctors barely managed to save her but she never got to Beslan. Arkady Babitsky of Radio Free Europe who had already been kidnapped and released in mysterious circumstances, was arrested on ridiculous “hooliganism” charges.

One of the clearest signs that attitudes are changing is the re-emergence of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. They have made several statements, indicating that once again, their casualty figures are consistently higher then the official ones. They have also been calling for peace negotiations. Please note that they have not prejudged those negotiations or called for any results, merely pointed out that the war is going nowhere, casualties are mounting and negotiations would be a good idea.

It was to this end that they wanted to meet and have exploratory talks with Zakayev. Alas, that is not to be. The Belgian government has spoken. As between peace and freedom and a frightened kow-tow to a leader who is a burgeoning dictator, the decision was predictable.

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